A Himalayan tunnel of good hope

A Himalayan tunnel of good hope

Imagine a life in a snow-capped place cut off from the rest of the world for at least five months. It’s tough, to say the least, particularly when all schools and shops shut down, public transportation comes to a grinding halt and the overpowering snow blizzards threaten to snap power supplies when it’s needed the most in freezing sub-zero temperatures.

It may sound like a nightmare for many, but it’s the life people in the picturesque Keylong district in Himachal Pradesh live every winter, for five-months.

Ahead of November, snowfall scales up to several feet inundating everything in white drape. The only route connecting this part of the country is Rohtang Pass located at a height of upwards of 13,000 feet above sea level, ahead of tourist town Manali in Himachal Pradesh. That too is closed for vehicular traffic for months due to heavy snowfall.

But a horse-shoe shaped tunnel promises hope. It’s a tunnel being built deep under the gigantic Rohtang Pass.

This tunnel, which will be one of the longest in India, will not only cut short the distance by several hours for commuters going towards Keylong, Lahaul-Spiti from Manali, it also promises all-season connectivity by road.

The good part is that half of the work on the 8.8 km-long tunnel is already complete, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has informed Lahaul-Spiti legislator Ravi Thakur in a communiqué recently. The sad part, though, is that the tunnel project is running behind schedule, at least by a year-and-half, or even more.

Cost overruns too have piled up ever since 2010 when work first started. The project is sure to miss its initial completion deadline of 2015. For now, year 2017 holds the promise. It is hoped that the work on the tunnel is complete by then.
Nevertheless, it remains a lifeline tunnel for the future for many reasons.

The tunnel will connect Manali with Lahaul-Spiti and other areas, reducing the distance between the two regions by 46 km, and the journey by three hours. All-weather connectivity for people of the upper snowy regions comes along. Defence supplies to faraway snow-capped regions like Ladakh along the border with China are expected to be streamlined once the tunnel gets functional.

The Manali-Leh highway has many high altitude passes, including the Lachlung La Pass at 5,066 metres which contribute significantly in the movement of troop and equipment to the forward areas in Ladakh. These areas will greatly benefit. The
85-km distance from Manali to Keylong on the other side of Rohtang Pass takes about five hours. This distance would be covered in less than half-an-hour through the tunnel.

The double-lane tunnel is 11.3-m wide and is being designed for 3,000 vehicles per day and a maximum speed of 80 km per hour. It’s a project likely to exceed its initial cost estimated cost Rs 1,450 crore.

The work on the tunnel ever since it started about four years ago has been extremely arduous. That’s also because the areas through which the tunnel would pass witness a temperature ranging from minus 20 to minus 2 degrees in December to February every winter. Initially, civil engineers dug up to 6 metres a day, then it dropped to 4 metres because the conditions did not permit to dig any further.

The progress with state-of-the-art boring equipment has often been inhibited with unexpected water ingress. Snow avalanches at the tunnel’s northern end bring work to a grinding halt. A stream of underground water that crosses the tunnel has invariably brought work to a standstill. The water ingress leaves work suspended for weeks. Working in sub-zero temperature has also contri­buted to its share of delay.

The challenges are more than what were perceived initially. At times, heavy water streams flow out from deep rock cavity inside the tunnel bringing along slush and rubble. The work on the northern Lahaul Spiti side is more challenging. For the three years since 2010, work was done for only six months on the northern side due to heavy snowfall in winters that makes it virtually impossible for men and
machinery to carry out boring.

The work on the venture is being carried out by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) jointly with an Indian-Austrian company. Once during the course of digging, engineers encountered a situation detecting a flow of 30 litres of water per second gushing inside the tunnel from the Seri rivulet.

The Seri is a tributary of the Beas River and the tunnel alignment crossed beneath the rivulet. Experts from the BRO and Austria had to resort to measures like rock grouting and bolting, besides using special chemicals to counter the problem and pump out the gushing waters from inside the tunnel.

Certain difficulties such as significant change in rock class are also being encountered compared with what was initially assumed, Jaitley wrote in his letter. The tunnel project was conceived way back in 1983, but somehow could not take off. The Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the Rohtang tunnel project in September 2009. The tunnel, it is expected, will propel tourism upwards of Manali towards Lahaul-Spiti in a big way.

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